How did the choice of ‘Jeopardy!’ host become so controversial?

Matt Brennan and Robert Lloyd
Los Angeles Times (TNS)
This combination photo shows Mike Richards, left, in the pressroom at the 43rd annual Daytime Emmy Awards on May 1, 2016, in Los Angeles and Mayim Bialik at a Celebration of the 70th Anniversary of Israel on June 10, 2018, in Los Angeles. Eight months after the death of beloved “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek, the daily syndicated quiz show chose its executive producer as Trebek’s successor over a field of celebrity candidates. Sony also chose Mayim Bialik as emcee for “Jeopardy!” primetime and spinoff series, including a new college championship.  (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

When the news leaked last week that “Jeopardy!” executive producer Mike Richards was circling one of the most coveted jobs in television — the venerable quiz show’s host — the reaction was swift and largely disappointed. After a monthslong stretch of rotating guest hosts pitched as a kind of open call to replace the late Alex Trebek, many questioned the decision by Sony Pictures Television, which produces the syndicated series, to tap an internal candidate over a number of higher-profile celebrities.

Then the controversy deepened: The attention brought new scrutiny to his being named in three discrimination lawsuits filed by “The Price Is Right” employees between 2008 and 2011 when Richards was an executive producer on the game show. (Richards was dismissed as a defendant in one of the suits; another suit was dismissed altogether; and the third was settled out of court.)

“These were allegations made in employment disputes against the show,” Richards responded to the claims in a memo to “Jeopardy!” staff obtained by The Times. “I want you all to know that the way in which my comments and actions have been characterized in these complaints does not reflect the reality of who I am or how we worked together on ‘The Price Is Right.’”

With Wednesday’s news that Richards will in fact be the next host of “Jeopardy!” — alongside “The Big Bang Theory” star Mayim Bialik, who will helm specials and a possible spinoff — Los Angeles Times TV critic Robert Lloyd and TV editor Matt Brennan break down what it could mean for one of TV’s most beloved shows.

Robert Lloyd, TV critic: And so the Great “Jeopardy!” Host Hunt has come to its end, with “Who’s that now?” executive producer Richards stepping into Trebek’s giant shoes to host the daily version and Bialik behind the podium for prime-time specials, whenever and how often they come.

I am chiming in from a position of, not ignorance, exactly, but inexperience, having seen their work and that of sentimental favorite LeVar Burton (“Reading Rainbow,” people) and “Jeopardy!” GOAT Ken Jennings only in clips. Fans and even casual viewers of such a long-running, truly beloved television institution were bound to have both considered opinions and gut reactions about whoever was named — this double-hosting solution does seem designed to soften a blow — and mine included regarding this as some sort of self-appointment that completely ignored the audience and also a missed opportunity to significantly change the face of the show while placing it in the hands of someone lovable who clearly loved it. (I am happy that Bialik is involved.)

Richards’ election feels controversial, not just because of allegations of workplace discrimination at “The Price is Right,” but because, on the face of it, he seems the dullest, most corporate choice possible. Yet actually looking back to media and social media reaction at the time of his stint, reportedly to plug a COVID-shaped hole in the guest-host rotation and before anyone considered him an actual candidate, Richards seems to have done quite well — a “Good Morning, America” segment deemed him an “overnight sensation” — and his ratings were second only to Jennings’. (Full disclosure: I am related by marriage to “Jeopardy!” creator Merv Griffin. I just enjoy mentioning that.)

Matt Brennan, TV editor: I think your assessment is correct, Robert, that the upset around Richards’ selection is as much about the process as it is about his ability to step into the role — and what that process says about how Hollywood has and has not changed after years of conversation about white male privilege in the industry on the one hand, and a serious lack of diversity on the other.

Richards, handsome and trim, affable and plainspoken, is indistinguishable in his charcoal suit from most every other game or quiz show host in the history of the medium, not to mention most news anchors, weathermen and late-night hosts; he is practically a factory-made copy of the messenger Hollywood has imagined Americans want beamed into their homes since pretty much the advent of TV itself — making him at once a safe bet for Sony, which has a lot riding on “Jeopardy!'s” sustained success, and a frustrating choice for the many observers who saw the passing of the baton as a chance to cast a trailblazer like Burton in a programming powerhouse. I’m not sure it reaches the level of Dick Cheney choosing himself as George W. Bush’s running mate, but it does all have a slightly unpleasant taste to it.

Plus, after that news cycle over the lawsuits, all filed by women, Bialik’s selection does have the feel of ... a consolation prize? A backup plan? A cop-out? It seems unlikely to quell critics of Richards as host, and presents the potential for Jay Leno/Conan O’Brien-style shenanigans down the line — especially if “Jeopardy!” becomes more of a fixture in prime time, where the “Greatest of All Time” tournament, hosted by Trebek, turned into a rare broadcast sensation in early 2020.

You have written — rather movingly, in my view — about what Trebek brought to the “Jeopardy!” gig, and also about the fraught nature of handing off a TV institution like a game show or a late-night show. Let’s accept that the Richards/Bialik assumption of the throne is happening. What sorts of challenges do they face?

Lloyd: I think there’s a natural impulse to warily regard anyone who comes in to helm a television institution, especially when replacing someone as identified with the program as Trebek was with “Jeopardy!” They felt inextricable, the host and his show, although, clearly, they were not. Alex is gone and “Jeopardy!” goes on; viewers have seemed genuinely excited over and anxious about the question of who would come next.

By the same token, I’m guessing that among the Sony brass there’s a sense not so much of crisis but that the show can take care of itself as long as the host is not actually getting in the way of its well-established rituals and rhythms — in which case Richards does make a kind of sense. He’s not at all a bold choice, but he won’t mess it up. From the little I’ve seen of her hosting — and apart from whatever academic nerd credentials she brings to the only game show that prizes more than superficial knowledge of a range of subjects — Bialik does lead with her personality; her evident joy in being there underscores the fact that “Jeopardy!” is itself a happy place, without the noisy drama of shows like “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?” You could meditate to the “Final Jeopardy” theme. Was it a consolation prize? Not for Bialik, to whom the show owes nothing, but I’m sure someone in this decision-making process must have considered the optics.

I’m in no rush to judge Richards as a host (and in no place to judge the “Price Is Right” allegations). But to return to my earlier point, and thinking specifically about changes in late-night talk shows — where hosts typically remain in place for years before moving on, happily (David Letterman) or reluctantly (Jay Leno) — viewers habitually underestimate the new guy. And yes, it’s always a guy.

Jimmy Fallon, Trevor Noah, Craig Ferguson: No one really knew what to make of them at first, and the fact is they all needed time to find their way in the job. Eventually, if you stick with a show, you stop thinking about Johnny Carson or Letterman or Jon Stewart or whoever it was you loved and the “Tonight Show” becomes Fallon’s and “The Daily Show” Noah’s. Of course, Richards will not be altering “Jeopardy!” to suit his talents, whatever they prove to be — the show is elegant in its simplicity, rarely changing and even then in the most minor ways. But it is also tough, and, as the recent parade of guest hosts has demonstrated, can accommodate a range of tones. Barring some late-landing bombshell, or unlikely mass defection, Richards will become The Host of “Jeopardy!” — or at any rate A Host of “Jeopardy!” — in the public mind.

Brennan: The length of the host’s usual tenure on a series like this is, I think, why the missed opportunity aspect smarts so acutely: What comes to mind, since you mention it, are the yearslong gulfs between late-night pioneers like Joan Rivers, Wanda Sykes and Samantha Bee, or Arsenio Hall and Larry Wilmore. These seats don’t open often, and failing to diversify such roles when they do is one of the reasons for Hollywood’s ongoing representation problems.

Still, as you say, I will be eagerly tuning in to both Richards’ and Bialik’s first appearances at the lectern, largely to see how they do. It’s a very different thing to take on a long-term sinecure at a stalwart series like “Jeopardy!” than it is to fill in on the fly, and I suspect the anticipation and pressure will mean sky-high ratings that neither Sony nor the affiliates that air the show will sniff at. The very point of institutions — democratic, televisual — is that they are meant to outlive their leaders, and “Jeopardy!” is as tightly run an institution as any. I suppose now we’ll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, I’ll be worrying about who’ll take over “Jeopardy!” spoofing from Kenan Thompson if he ever decides to retire from “Saturday Night Live.”